The ‘other’

The concept of the ‘other’ is discussed in detail in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said explains the way in which groups use contrasting identities in order to give themselves definition (i.e. you know what you are on the basis of what you are not; what you are not is ‘other’ to you). In this context, it is almost as though the other (whatever it may be) becomes more important than one’s own identity, because the self is dependent on the other for definition. This all sounds a bit ambiguous, but I think the best statement made about this is the one by Oscar Wilde, written much before ‘other’ even became a known term in philosophy and literature.

Wilde said: ‘most people are other people’. He may not have meant it in the orientalist context, but the same idea applies. We define our personal identity in relation to other people in our society. There is always a relative situation that enables us to define our place in society; I guess this is a natural part of living as separate creatures in a shared world.

A very interesting book by Amartya Sen opens with Wilde’s quote and goes on to explore the very question of identity, nationality and postcolonialism. It is called Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny. It is full of humour and insight, and sheds tremendous light on the complex notion of an inherent identity. Sen is full of the wisdom of experience, brought to a sharp precision through his intellect.